Choosing and Refining Topics

General Strategies for Coming Up With Topics

Before attempting to choose or narrow a topic, you need to have some ideas to choose from. This can be a problem if you are suffering from the "blank page or screen" syndrome, and have not even any initial, general ideas for writing topics.


As writers, some of our best ideas occur to us when we are thinking in a very informal, uninhibited way. Though we often think of brainstorming as a way for groups to come up with ideas, it is a strategy that individual writers can make use of as well. Simply put, brainstorming is the process of listing rough thoughts (in any form they occur to you: words, phrases, or complete sentences) that are connected (even remotely) to the writing assignment you have before you or the subject area you already have in mind. Brainstorming works best when you give yourself a set amount of time (perhaps five or ten minutes), writing down anything that comes to mind within that period of time, and resisting the temptation to criticize or polish your own ideas as they hit the page. There is time for examination and polishing when the five or ten minutes are over.


Freewriting is a technique much like brainstorming, only the ideas generated are written down in paragraph rather than list form. When you freewrite, you allow yourself a set amount of time (perhaps five or ten minutes), and you write down any and every idea that comes to mind as if you are writing a timed essay. However, your freewrite is unlikely to read like an organized essay. In fact, it shouldn't read that way. What is most important about freewriting is that you write continuously, not stopping to check your spelling, to find the right word, or even to think about how your ideas are fitting together. If you are unable to think of something to write, simply jot out, "I can't think of anything to write now," and go on. At the end of your five or ten minutes, reread what you have written, ignore everything that seems unimportant or ridiculous, and give attention to whatever ideas you think are worth pursuing. If you are able to avoid checking yourself while you are writing for that short time, you will probably be surprised at the number of ideas that you already have.


Clustering is a way of visually "mapping" your ideas on paper. It is a technique which works well for people who are able to best understand relationships between ideas by seeing the way they play themselves out spatially. (If you prefer reading maps to reading written directions, clustering may be the strategy for you.) Unlike formal outlining, which tends to be very linear, clustering allows you to explore the way ideas sprawl in different directions. When one thought leads to another, you can place that idea on the "map" in its appropriate place. And if you want to change its position later, and connect it with another idea, you can do so. (It is always a good idea to use a pencil rather than a pen for clustering, for this very reason.)

This is a good strategy not only for generating ideas, but also for determining how much you have to say about a topic (or topics), and how related or scattered your ideas are.

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